Tag Archives: Ripper Street

Fan power

Events such as Comic-Con and social media have unleashed a new breed of super-fan – but how are TV shows utilising this new audience, and what influence do they have on the shows they love?

Most TV dramas have audiences – but some have fans.

You know the type. They attend Comic-Con in fancy dress – like the Walking Dead fan in Dortmund pictured above – and have limited-edition action figures of the cast at home, still in the original packaging. Or they organise weekend-long pyjama parties to binge-watch entire box sets for the 20th time.

It would be easy to write off fans as the TV industry’s eccentric relatives. But the reality is broadcasters, platforms and producers pay them a lot of attention.

“Fandom is central to our brand strategy,” says Carmi Zlotnik, MD of US premium cablenet Starz. “The phrase ‘For All Fankind’ is our battle cry. Igniting white-hot passion for shows is what drives our subscriber business.”

Starz series Outlander was developed from novels by Diana Gabaldon

For Starz, the question of fan power first arises if the network is developing IP that has a pre-existing fanbase, Zlotnik adds. “Take something like Outlander, which we developed from Diana Gabaldon’s novels. That came with a 20-year publishing history and an audience of 25 million. Or American Gods, which we are adapting from bestselling author Neil Gaiman’s iconic novel. Part of the appeal in both cases is that you have a hard core of fans that can evangelise on behalf of your show. But the challenge is making sure they get behind your interpretation. You have to be able to honour their passion while recognising that the needs of the book and the show may be different.”

Pivotal to this is having an author that is enthusiastic about discussing the show’s direction with the original fanbase, says Zlotnik, explaining why particular narrative, locations or casting decisions have been made.

This is particularly important when the TV series needs to diverge from the source material – something fans find much easier to swallow if the author is on board.

As Gabaldon has said: “I tell people the book is the book and the show is the show, and you’re going to enjoy both of them immensely – but not if you sit in front of the show with the book in your hand going, ‘Wait, wait, you left that out!’”

For the author to take this position, it’s crucial they have a great working relationship with the showrunner, adds Zlotnik. “We’re fortunate that Diana and [showrunner] Ronald D Moore are in lockstep on Outlander and that there is a close connection between Neil and [co-showrunner] Bryan Fuller and Michael Green on American Gods.”

One important proviso to all of the above is to ensure the existence of a fanbase doesn’t become the sole determinant of whether a show gets made, says Chris Parnell, executive VP of US drama development and programming for Sony Pictures Television (SPT). “We have created shows with pre-existing fanbases such as Outlander, Preacher and Powers,” he says, “but everything still has to come down to the idea. A rabid, under-served fan base is a good selling tool when talking to a broadcaster, and it provides a platform for getting season one moving. But you have to evaluate whether the story you’re looking at will make a good television series.”

Like Outlander, Preacher is based on source material with a legion of loyal fans, whose reaction to the adaptation is crucial

Of course, not all shows are based on existing IP so here the responsibility lies even more squarely on the shoulders of the showrunner and cast. “With Power, we were fortunate to have Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson on board as an executive producer,” says Starz’ Zlotnik. “He attracted a lot of interest before launch. But showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh has since done a great job of keeping up a dialogue with fans.”

Fan management takes on a different complexion once the show is on air. By this point, the pre-existing fanbase has been joined by viewers with no existing creative baggage. With an end product to view, the relationship with fans increasingly pivots around what they are saying on social media.

“A big difference compared with 10 years ago is that you can get an immediate sense of what the audience thinks,” says Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady, whose recent credits include Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders and My Mad Fat Diary. “That’s fantastic when you consider that the only feedback we used to get was from commissioners or critics, who might have their own reasons for disliking your show.”

A key question, then, is what to do with this fan commentary. Should it, for example, influence the creative team’s decisions about the show? “Mostly we’re dealing with shows where the entire series is in the can before the audience sees it, so the question is whether you take what they say into account for subsequent seasons,” says Tiplady. “Generally, I’d say the writer has a story to tell and they know what it is, so you don’t want them to be swayed too much by fans. But if there is a character the audience loves then there may be room to expand their role – or not kill them off – in season two.”

While writers and producers need to be cautious about paying too much attention to specific fan opinions, there is clearly a growing belief that engaging with fans around the outskirts of a show is a worthwhile exercise.

This is manifested in various ways, such as the rapidly growing number of after-show chat series (The Talking Dead, After the Thrones), attendance at events like Comic-Con and the use of social media forums.

Darren Prew and Kerry Ford (second and third from right) dressed as Jon Snow and Daenerys Targayen after they won a Blinkbox Movies competition to hold a Game of Thrones-style wedding at Eastnor Castle

“AMC’s The Walking Dead and Shonda Rhimes’ ABC dramas have been pioneers in using social media,” says Jenna Santoianni, senior VP of TV series at prodco Sonar Entertainment. “As far as possible, you always need to be looking at what fan activities you can get involved in to raise the profile of your show. When MTV launched The Shannara Chronicles [produced by Sonar] last year, for example, one of the show’s stars, Austin Butler, took over MTV’s Snapchat to promote the show. He also live-tweeted to the east and west coasts of the US.”

Sonar has worked closely with Terry Brooks – the author of the books on which The Shannara Chronicles is based – ensuring he is central to the decision-making process. “Six or seven months ahead of the launch, we screened a trailer at Comic-Con,” Santoianni says. “That was aimed at Terry’s loyal fans, the people who would be evangelists for the show and get the word out.”

Naturally, shows that play to the younger end of the millennial spread tend to have a high profile on social media. Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars is often cited as the best example of this, having amassed more than 100 million show-related tweets since it launched in 2010, as well as strong figures for Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest engagement. In part, this is down to the fan demographic, but there is also the fact that the show’s stars themselves are hardcore social media users.

In terms of harnessing that interest, Freeform has spent a lot of time analysing fan conversations and then using that as the basis for marketing the show. This strategy seems to have paid off, with Pretty Little Liars coming to an end next year after seven seasons.

That isn’t because of ratings weakness, either. The series is Freeform’s top-rating show and is likely to end on a high having pre-warned the audience it is ending – via social media.

A costumed fan meets The Flash himself, Grant Gustin

Stephen Stohn, executive producer of iconic teen series Degrassi: Next Class, has been living and breathing the Degrassi franchise for decades. His wife, Linda Schuyler, created it, and Stohn says fan dialogue was always central to their philosophy: “We didn’t just want to create TV, we wanted to create engagement and that is part of the reason why the show has had such longevity. Long before social media really took off as a mainstream phenomenon, we launched a walled-garden website which allowed users to log in as Degrassi students.”

Changing media usage has left that model behind, but Stohn believes the principles underlying the show have kept it relevant: “We always look to create a conversation with fans, and I think that’s especially relevant now that Next Class is streaming on Netflix. Deeper engagement with audiences means they are more likely to subscribe — or, at the very least, that they are less likely to churn out of the service.”

However, Stohn stresses that, from a producer’s perspective, fan engagement is not fundamentally driven by business objectives. “We do it because we’re passionate about telling stories that connect with our audience,” he insists. “We get some incredibly moving feedback from our fans about how the show has echoed aspects of their lives. Our writers are very active on social media, which is what drives Degrassi’s authenticity.”

While there’s logic to all of the above, does this mean fan power can bring shows back from the dead? Over the years, hardcore fans have done everything from funding billboards in support of axed shows to organising demonstrations at network offices. Banana crates, Tabasco sauce and Mars Bars have all been sent to executives in zany attempts to save threatened shows.

These days, however, “it seems as though every time there is a series cancellation, someone launches a campaign to bring it back,” says Tiger Aspect’s Tiplady. “But we’re actually among the fortunate few to have had a scripted show brought back, when Ripper Street was renewed.”

Originally a BBC show, Ripper Street was cancelled after season two but was then revived for a third season following a new financial package that saw Amazon come on board as a partner.

“There’s no question that we were energised by the fan campaign to bring Ripper Street back, but it was a mix of factors that made it happen,” Tiplady admits. “I think timing came into it. Amazon needed strong scripted content at that time and we were ready to go. The BBC didn’t want to cancel the show – it was a question of financing – so when a solution was found, they were happy about it.”

Supergirl’s David Harewood poses with a fan of the show

This seems to be a pattern. While fan campaigns can generate positive PR, there also needs to be a clear business benefit and a sense of a tactical opportunity. In the US, for example, ABC cancelled Nashville after four seasons, only for the show to be picked up for a fifth season by Viacom-owned country music-themed channel CMT.

At the time, CMT president Brian Philips said: “CMT heard the fans. The wave of love and appreciation they have unleashed for Nashville has been overwhelming. We see our fans and ourselves in this show and we will treasure it like no other network. It belongs on CMT.”

While all of this is probably true, the decision was also underpinned by some compelling commercial factors. First, the show was attracting 6.7 million viewers in Live+7 ratings – not enough for ABC but plenty for a cable channel like CMT to work with. Second, it was uniquely ‘on brand’ for CMT. Third, cable channels are desperate for scripted shows, so the prospect of a ready-made franchise would have been very appealing. And, finally, Hulu participated in the deal, echoing the BBC/Amazon partnership that brought back Ripper Street.

If the notion of fans resurrecting scripted shows is slightly over-romanticised, another area where fan power has so far proved limited is crowdfunding via platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While we’ve seen films and animation series secure multimillion-dollar sums to support production, there are no high-profile examples on the scripted TV front – yet.

However, it’s reasonable to suggest that long-running fan support for a classic show is an indicator that it might be ripe for a reboot. And there’s certainly a suspicion that negative fan feedback can kill a show off.

This was the view of Rhett Reese, co-creator of Zombieland, a TV spin-off of the iconic 2009 movie that was piloted for Amazon in 2013. “I’ll never understand the vehement hate the pilot received from die-hard fans,” he said at the time. “You guys successfully hated it out of existence.”

Overall, there’s no question that fan behaviour needs to be a part of producer, broadcaster and streamer thinking. Indeed, we’re reaching a point in the evolution of TV where the intensity of fan love can be a better measure of a show’s future potential than its season one ratings.

Commenting on this contention, SPT’s Parnell says: “There’s so much competition that people don’t necessarily get to see a show when it is launched. So it may be that big ratings in season one are not the only indicator of a show’s future prospects. We’ve seen series like Bloodline [Netflix] and Underground [WGN America] build fup momentum off the back of strong fan interest.”

This would, again, chime with the view from the commissioning side. Speaking at last year’s Edinburgh International TV Festival, Amazon Studios head Roy Price concluded: “The key to standing out is the show has to have a voice that people care about, that people love and that is really distinctive. The returns on ordinary are rapidly declining. It’s got to be neat, it’s got to be amazing, it’s got to be worth talking about.”

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British writers display their dark side

Today is the last day of BBC Showcase, an annual event that sees around 700 programme buyers from around the world descend on Liverpool in the UK to view and potentially acquire BBC Worldwide (BBCWW)-distributed content.

At this year’s event, BBCWW has had a lot of its success with crime drama, selling around 900 hours of programming to markets including Europe, the Middle East and Japan. It’s a reminder that the Nordic nations aren’t the only ones capable of producing compelling noir.

Paul Dempsey, president of global markets at BBCWW, commented: “British crime drama is hugely popular around the world and accounts for over 40% of our drama revenue.”

The fact that the UK does so well is a testament to the quality of TV crime writing in the country, so this week we’ll take a look at some of the talent driving the international hit machine.

luther-5Luther, which stars Idris Elba as DCI John Luther, was acquired by German public broadcaster ZDF, Star India and also by platforms in South Korea and Africa. The fourth series, which aired in the UK during December 2015, consisted of two feature-length episodes. What it lacked in volume, it made up for in ratings, with the two episodes attracting around 7.5 to eight million viewers. All 16 episodes of Luther have been written by New Zealand-based Neil Cross, who has also written episodes of Doctor Who for the BBC. Cross has also been commissioned by the BBC to write Hard Sun, a six-part apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London.

lynleyThe Inspector Lynley Mysteries was also picked up by ZDF for its ZDFneo channel. Originally broadcast from 2001 to 2008, the series (based on the novels by Elizabeth George) has proved a decent performer on the international market. In the US, for example, all 23 episodes have aired on PBS. Several scribes have written episodes, including Pete Jukes, Simon Block, Lizzie Mickery, Valerie Windsor, Kate Wood, Francesca Brill, Valerie Windsor, Ann-marie di Mambro, Kevin Clarke, Simon Booker, Julian Simpson, Mark Grieg and Ed Whitmore. Whitmore also wrote a large number of episodes for fellow long-running BBC crime drama Waking the Dead. His other credits include Silent Witness (which was also picked up by TV4 Sweden at Showcase), Arthur & George and Identity, an ITV production that was subsequently sold as a format to ABC in the US. Whitmore also has a couple of episodes of CSI to his name.

happy-valley-dvdHappy Valley season two, was picked up by French PayTV broadcaster Canal+ (which also acquired the fourth season of Luther). The show’s first run was a strong seller overseas and there’s no reason to suppose the new outing will fare any less well. The show is produced by Red Production Company and written by Sally Wainwright. Wainwright also created Scott & Bailey, another popular female-led crime series that has been airing since 2011 on ITV.

prey-series-2Prey is broadcast by ITV in the UK but is distributed internationally by BBCWW. The first batch of three episodes aired in 2014 and starred John Simm, while a second run of three aired in late 2015 and starred Philip Glenister. The latter has just been sold to broadcasters including NRK Norway, YLE Finland and Canal+. Prey was created by Chris Lunt, who wrote all six episodes. Lunt’s success is a reminder that it’s never too late to break into the TV writing business. After 10 years of knocking on doors and pitching more than 80 projects, Lunt finally got his break at age 43. Media reports suggest he is also working on a modern-day adaptation of The Saint with the aforementioned Ed Whitmore.

sherlockSherlock, created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, has sold very well around the world since it debuted in 2010. At the start of this year, Gatiss and Moffat created one-off special The Abominable Bride, in which much of the action took place in the Victorian era (though a scriptwriting sleight of hand meant the story was actually linked back to the contemporary setting of the series). Broadcasters that picked up the special at Showcase include Degeto (Germany), SVT Sweden, Czech Television and Channel One in Russia. A fourth series of Sherlock is on the way in 2017, with stories for a fifth season also sketched out by Gatiss and Moffat. The show is very slow to come to market because of the busy schedules of Gatiss, Moffat and the lead cast members.

maigret_itvMaigret, based on the books by Georges Simenon, is a new ITV series starring Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder, Mr Bean). At Showcase it was picked up by Germany’s Degeto, which also acquired Sherlock: The Abominable Bride. The writer on this one is the experienced Stewart Harcourt, whose other credits include Agatha Raisin: The Quiche of Death, Love & Marriage, Treasure Island, Inspector George Gently, Poirot and Marple. So if anyone can handle a book-based period detective story, it’s Harcourt.

unforgottenUnforgotten, like Prey, is an ITV series distributed worldwide by BBCWW. Aired in October 2015, the first six-part series focuses on four people whose lives are rocked when the bones belonging to a young man who died 39 years ago are discovered below a demolished house. At Showcase, the drama was picked up by France 3 and YES DBS Satellite in Israel. The show was produced by Mainstreet Pictures and written and created by Chris Lang. Lang started his career on The Bill and has had a successful writing career since, with credits including Amnesia, Torn, A Mother’s Son and Undeniable. The ratings success of Unforgotten convinced ITV to commission a second series. There’s no information yet on the plot but it looks like it will be another cold-case drama, with Lang saying there will be “a new story, where long-buried secrets will once again be slowly brought to light.”

deathinparadiseDeath In Paradise was part of a package of 232 hours of crime drama sold to SVT in Sweden. Produced by Red Planet Pictures, the show has also been given the greenlight for a sixth series this week by Charlotte Moore, controller of BBC1, and Polly Hill, controller of BBC drama commissioning. All told, that will mean there are 48 episodes, which is a good number for the international market. Maybe that explains why it has sold to 237 territories worldwide including China, South Africa, the US and the Caribbean countries close to where the show is set and filmed. Echoing some of the other BBC dramas, Death In Paradise is written by a number of people. But the best-known name is series creator Robert Thorogood, who came to Red Planet’s attention via its scriptwriting competition.

fatherBrownFather Brown is based on the books by GK Chesterton and perfectly fits into the British tradition of eccentric or unusual amateur sleuths. The central character, played by Mark Williams, is a Roman Catholic priest. Unusually for a British drama, the 1950s-set show is already up to 45 episodes after just four series. At Showcase it was picked up by PBC (PTV) in South Korea and ABC Australia. Given the high number of episodes, it’s no surprise Father Brown is an ensemble-written afffair, with credited writers including Tahsin Guner, Rachel Flowerday, Nicola Wilson, Rebecca Wojciechowski, Jude Tindall Dan Muirden, Lol Fletcher, Paul Matthew Thompson, Dominique Moloney, David Semple, Rob Kinsman, Stephen McAteer, Jonathan Neil, Kit Lambert and Al Smith. Particularly prominent has been Guner, who wrote the very first episode and the last one in series four (among others). Repped by David Higham Associates, Guner was selected for the 2009/10 BBC Writers Academy and has written scripts for dramas including Holby, Casualty and New Tricks. He is currently developing original drama series Borders.

ripperstreetRipper Street was licensed this week to Multichoice VoD service Showmax. The show, which was famously saved by a financial injection from Amazon, is a period crime drama set in Victorian England. With four series of Ripper Street already produced and released, Amazon has already committed itself to a fifth season – taking the total number of episodes above 30. Another team effort, the key writer name attached to this is creator Richard Warlow, who tends to deliver about half of the episodes in each series. Warlow’s previous writing credits include Waking the Dead and Mistresses. Other writers on the show have included Toby Finlay (Peaky Blinders) and Rachel Bennette (Lark Rise to Candleford, Lewis and Liberty).

coronerThe Coroner is a daytime drama series about a solicitor who takes over as a coroner in the South Devon coastal town she left as a teenager. At Showcase it sold to AXN Mystery in Japan and Prime in New Zealand. The show was created by Sally Abbott, who also wrote three episodes of the first series. There’s a good blog from Abbott about how she got her break in the business here.

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DQ goes behind the scenes on Amazon’s Ripper Street

Enjoying its second chance at life after being canned by the BBC, Amazon’s Ripper Street has found a new production home in the shape of an unfinished hotel. The cast and crew reveal why they were happy to check in.

Set in sprawling countryside on the outskirts of south Dublin, the Kilternan Hotel stands empty. The partially built and extended complex had been the subject of a €171m (US$186m) redevelopment until the property market collapse brought work to a halt.

But the extensive estate proved to be the perfect stage for Ripper Street, the period crime drama that has made the Irish capital its home.

After filming the first three seasons at Clancy Barracks, which are now being redeveloped, producers Tiger Aspect and Lookout Point were looking for a new location in which to recreate Victorian London – and the Kilternan’s array of rooms fit for filming, as well as doubling as offices, persuaded the production team to make their reservations.

The change of filming location comes at an appropriate point in the life of Ripper Street, which started out on BBC1. In December 2013, after two seasons, the series was cancelled by the pubcaster – only to be resurrected in February 2014 by online retailer Amazon, which commissioned a third season for its then-burgeoning Prime Instant Video service.

Game of Thrones' Jerome Flynn has a leading role in Ripper Street
Game of Thrones’ Jerome Flynn has a leading role in Ripper Street

The deal was a first for a British show and saw the third run air on Amazon several months before playing on BBC1. Amazon subsequently ordered fourth and fifth seasons, independent of the BBC, with season four available now on Amazon Prime Video.

Set in 1897 – the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and two years after the season three finale – Ripper Street’s latest run sees Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) drawn back to Whitechapel where he is reunited with Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn), now the Head of H Division, and Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg). New cast members include David Threlfall (Shameless) as Abel Croker, who is described as a wharfinger, villain and a keeper of other men’s secrets; and Matthew Lewis (Harry Potter).

Filming for 13 new episodes, which will be split across seasons four and five, began last August, with two episodes filmed at a time over 24 days – and the leading actors say they have enjoyed working on the new set, where everything from the weather to the time of day is under the producers’ control.

“I prefer the new sets,” admits Rothenberg. “It makes you feel very focused. Whenever I work outside in the real world, I can’t help but feel like everything is real except me. But you know here that everything is a set and made to act in front of.”

Flynn adds: “At Clancy, we had to deal with the trains, the planes and the cars we were surrounded by, and the weather. It’s much more conducive here.”

asdasd
The production has found a new home in a disused hotel in Ireland

Lewis, who famously portrayed Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter franchise, describes the production design as “second to none.” He continues: “I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work on some big-budget stuff and these sets are impeccable. They’re some of the best I’ve worked on and it adds to the whole atmosphere.”

Lewis, who plays PC Drummond, admits it was daunting joining an established series, but says his fellow cast members have been extremely welcoming. “I’ve had a really good time,” he says. “The scripts this year have been so brilliant – the storylines take such a rollercoaster ride that it’s flown by. I’ve never done anything period before so it was a really great opportunity to jump into a bit of history.”

Flynn, meanwhile, acknowledges the part Ripper Street fans played in Amazon’s decision to save the show. “If you look at how Amazon works, it takes people’s responses to shows very seriously and makes programmes based on that,” he says. “There’s no doubt people’s keenness for Ripper Street to come back influenced Amazon.”

The actor, who also has an important role in HBO’s Game of Thrones, was keen to return when the streamer ordered two new seasons: “The quality of the production and the writing, especially the world and character relationships Richard (Warlow, the series creator) has created, made me want to come back.

“They’re part of what makes it so fun. It’s like coming back to a family, and that’s also partly about being in Ireland and the way the crew is created here and the feeling they create for us to come into. It’s a rich, wonderful job. I’ll be lucky if I find one like it again in my career. It’s been very special.”

Shameless star David Threlfall has been added to the cast for the latest season
Shameless star David Threlfall was added to the cast for the latest season

Had Amazon not rescued Ripper Street, the story would have been left at a loose end, says Frith Tiplady, head of drama production at Tiger Aspect. “At the end of season two, we really felt like there was unfinished business. The writers knew what they wanted to do (for season three). What was fantastic for us was the response – it did so well critically and worked well for Amazon. We knew it was the show that drove people to Amazon Prime.

“Toby (Finlay, who writes with Warlow) has also written a lot of episodes and together the writers have created this world and these characters. For me it’s about realising this world they’ve set up. They’ve now got three seasons’ worth of richness and they’ve really enjoyed working on character stories.”

But how has the show changed, if at all, by moving to a streaming service? Producer John Rushton says: “We’ve never been shy about showing the more graphic, seedier side of Whitechapel so when it comes to murdering, finding victims and so on, it’s not gratuitous but we’re confident in making sure the craft departments – make-up, costume, art – should be allowed to do that. And it’s in the writing and the language to capture that.”

So while the content hasn’t changed, Ripper Street is taking advantage of no longer being tied to the BBC1 broadcast hour. In particular, episodes one and two of season four were released as a feature-length instalment – just one example of the producers’ keenness to take advantage of the lack of a set running time.

Tiplady explains: “We never have to run to length, which means we can make the show that we want to make. In season three we had a longer episode just because that was how the story panned out. The only thing is when we did the cut-downs (for the BBC1 editions), we thought we’d just remove a strand to make it 59 minutes, but that isn’t how it works because everything’s got a pace and timing to it. We need to get better at being clearer if we have taken something out or not.”

prison cell
A new police station forms a key part of Ripper Street’s new set

With the show now in its fourth season, writers Warlow and Finlay “know what we can deliver on a scale that works for the storytelling,” Tiplady adds. “On season one they’d ask how much something was going to cost. We now get scripts that we can produce pretty much on first draft. We’ve not had a conversation about that, it’s just how they write now.”

On set, a brand new police station takes centre stage adjacent to a railway arch, while nearby shops and side streets can be dressed to provide multiple locations. Flexibility is key, says Rushton, adding that horses and carts have also been used during filming.

“We can film day and night, and can create any time of the day or night whenever necessary,” explains production designer Stephen Daly. “That’s been a big change for us because it means we can do a lot more nighttime shoots. There are certain angles where you don’t see the police station and the main street to the archway, so we can redress that so it becomes different streets. It changes all the time. All that is part of the planning process.”

The police station also serves as a live set, a first for Ripper Street, meaning the cameras can go through the doors and straight to the reception desk in one motion, without the need to cut to an interior set built elsewhere.

Inside Ripper Street’s new mortuary, which was previously a shower and toilet area for the nearby swimming pool, everything is clinically white with silver trolleys displaying an array of tools and implements, while one particular wall is home to several fridge units.

The pool itself doubled for scenes featuring the River Thames. Ruston adds: “Because we’re so used to the Whitechapel of Ripper Street, the police station in Leman Street and the Jewish Quarter, Richard wanted to give it a greater sense of place to show its proximity to the water. All our stories this season have a link to the river and everything going on in the British Empire. It’s just so appropriate because it’s set during the Diamond Jubilee.”

With a new life on Amazon and a fifth season already confirmed, that shouldn’t be the only celebration for Ripper Street this season.

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Hitting the right spot

Looking for Victorian London? Try Dublin. Or perhaps you’re after the kind of quintessentially Italian setting one can only find in Prague? From tax credits to geography and architecture, DQ examines the factors far beyond plotlines that play a part in selecting drama production locations.

Jetting around the world in search of locations was once the domain of feature-film producers. But it is now increasingly common for high-end TV productions to scour the globe for the right backdrops to their stories.

A key reason for this is the rise of tax incentives. With a growing number of countries and regions introducing financial sweeteners to attract film and TV drama, producers now have an array of opportunities to positively impact their budgets, either by controlling costs or putting more value on screen.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade's End, which was filmed in Belgium
Benedict Cumberbatch in Parade’s End, which was filmed in Belgium

Most scripted TV executives agree, however, that the pursuit of tax incentives shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the location decision-making process.

“I’ve been shooting around the world for 35 years so I know the pros and cons of tax incentives,” says Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik, “and the bottom line is it’s just one factor among many. The appeal of tax breaks has to be balanced with the creative needs of the project and the logistical set-up you find when you get to the other end.”

He cites hit Starz series Power as “a show that just had to be made in New York. We could probably have replicated New York in Toronto but I don’t think we would have got the authenticity that makes the show stand out.”

However, the network opted for a more exotic location for pirate drama Black Sails (pictured top), which shoots in Cape Town and will launch its third season in the US on January 23, 2016.

Zlotnik explains: “South Africa is a world-class location. You don’t just get tax incentives, you get a fantastic crew base and superb exterior locations. There is a construction team that knows how to build a ship and a deep pool of actors. In Black Sails, the second and third tiers of actors are great, which is something you wouldn’t get in every location. Details like that can have a real impact on whether the audience engages with a show.”

Patrick Irwin, executive producer and co-chairman at Far Moor, a coproduction specialist, takes a similar line. “I don’t think any producer would choose to shoot in a country simply to achieve tax breaks without considering the other factors,” he says. “They may well decide that the benefit from tax credits is outweighed, either by the creative sacrifices required or the additional logistical challenges, such as travel. Add to that the complications of meeting treaty and tax credit requirements and twin production bases in different countries, which means additional legal and potential collection agreements.”

The notion that tax incentives can be undermined by other financial factors is a common talking point. Aside from travel and accommodation costs, for example, the tax incentive premium can quickly dissolve if you need to bring in specialist equipment or if there are unanticipated production delays because of inexperienced or inefficient crews. This scenario is particularly common when countries have only recently introduced their tax incentives and are, as yet, unproven as filming locations.

“We took one of the first big drama productions, Parade’s End, into Belgium to take advantage of tax incentives,” recalls Ben Donald, another coproduction specialist who splits his time between working for BBC Worldwide and his own indie start-up Cosmopolitan Pictures. “While the shoot went very well, there was a lot of logistical running around. We found ourselves using several locations and flying in people we hadn’t expected to call on.”

Sky’s Fortitude was shot in Iceland
Sky’s Fortitude was shot in Iceland

There’s also “a human side to production that needs to be taken into account,” says Donald. “There is often an impulse among actors and other key talent to stay at home, which needs to be considered. It’s possible you will get a better end result if they are at home rather than in some temporary set-up.”

Having said that, it’s crystal clear tax incentives do influence location decision-making. California’s loss of film and TV work to Louisiana, Georgia, New York and Canada is a classic example of tax incentives redirecting work to other production centres. The UK has similarly lost out to Belgium, Ireland, Eastern Europe and South Africa over the years.

A case in point is Ripper Street, a BBC drama that recreates Victorian London in Dublin. It’s no surprise then that both California and the UK, despite the inherent strength of their infrastructures, have had to improve their own tax incentive schemes in order to reverse the runaway production trend of recent years.

Oliver Bachert, Beta Film’s senior VP for international sales and acquisition, says that in most cases there doesn’t need to be a conflict between creative and commercial considerations. “The economics of drama production mean you have to be realistic. But often we are in a position where the creative and financial requirements fall in line. Sometimes we can get the look we want in Eastern Europe at a lower price than we would get in Western Europe, so it makes sense to do that – especially when you’re dealing with places like Prague, in the Czech Republic, where the production infrastructure is excellent.”

Beta is currently involved in a US$17m miniseries called Maximilian that will shoot across Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, thus achieving the right mix of authenticity and efficiency. Indeed, Bachert says there are occasions with period pieces “when you can find better examples of the locations or buildings you want in foreign territories than where the story is set. With Borgias, an Italy-based story, we shot some of the production in Prague because it had the renaissance backdrop required.”

Donald endorses this point: “We’re working on a new production of Maigret with Rowan Atkinson. Although it is set in 1950s France, some of it is being shot in Budapest, Hungary. Clearly there are financial benefits to this, but it’s not always easy to shoot in cities like Paris because of the permit rules and because of the way the character of the city has changed.”

Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania
Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania

Most producers start with the requirements of the story and go from there. As FremantleMedia Australia director of drama Jo Porter explains: “There’s always a point at the beginning of the process where you’ll pass on some projects because you just know the location choices inherent in the story would be too expensive. But after you get into development there are usually a few options for where you might produce a show. It’s at this point you start weighing up the best alternatives.”

Not surprisingly, being in Australia makes a difference. “There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s inevitable that where you are based plays into your decision-making,” says Porter. “With many of our projects, the question for us is about which part of Australia offers the best creative and financial solution – not whether we should take the production to another country.”

However, Porter adds that there are times when the story dictates that you go abroad: “Advances in technology like green-screen and VFX have really helped. But we recently made a TV movie biopic for Network Ten called Mary: The Making of a Princess, about a local woman who married a Danish prince. For the sake of authenticity we had to go to Copenhagen. There’s only a limited amount you can achieve with Australia’s architecture and climate – though we have made it snow in Sydney.”

Exchange rates are another factor that Porter says can make a difference: “Australia has everything you could possibly need to handle an incoming production, but the strength of the Australian dollar has had a negative impact. Now, though, the currency has dropped enough that I think you might start to see it coming back onto producers’ radars.”

Of course, not all locations are in direct competition with each other. “There’s some overlap,” says Donald, “but if you’re looking for action-adventure backdrops then you probably think first about South Africa (which has hosted series like Left Bank’s Strike Back). And if it’s a biblical epic then you’re swaying towards places like Malta or Morocco. As for Eastern Europe, it gives you another set of urban and rural options.”

Morocco is an interesting case, because it continues to attract big-budget TV series such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, BBC2’s The Honourable Woman, Spike TV’s Tut, Fox’s Homeland and NBC’s AD: The Bible Continues – despite having no tax incentive. With superb standing sets at Ouarzazate in the south, it has doubled for locations like Iran, Egypt, Somalia and Israel, among others.

The Honourable Woman filmed scenes in Morocco
The Honourable Woman filmed scenes in Morocco…

Fans of Morocco cite a variety of factors for the country’s popularity, including the quality of the light, experienced crews, low production costs, political stability and a liberal attitude to Western filmmakers. But it remains to be seen whether the country can persist with its current stance on tax incentives.

With the UAE, Jordan, South Africa, Malta and Turkey all able to replicate some of Morocco’s landscapes, it may soon find itself having to join the increasing number of countries adopting incentives. South Africa, for example, is hosting ITV’s new four-part drama Tutankhamun, in which it will double for Egypt. Although usually thought of as a lush, fertile land, South Africa also doubled for Pakistan in Homeland and Afghanistan in Our Girl.

Echoing Porter’s point about location proximity, most US TV drama producers tend to make decisions about which US state to base their productions in (or whether to go north to Canada).

Gene Stein,  the former CEO of Sonar Entertainment, says: “We looked at a number of southern US states before we located Sonar’s new series South of Hell in Charleston, South Carolina. We needed a beautiful city to be the backdrop for a southern gothic story and it fit the bill perfectly. The fact there was a good financial package also played into the final decision.”

However, Stein says the US market’s current drive towards high-end drama is encouraging producers to make ambitious decisions about locations. “With the increasing number of distinctive dramas, there’s a hunger for great locations. Sonar recently shot Shannara for MTV in New Zealand. That’s a massive show that demanded a striking visual approach. So when you combined New Zealand’s beautiful locations with its tax incentives and the quality of its craftsmanship, it all made sense. And we’ve come out with a fantastic show.”

This endorsement of New Zealand, which is a prime location for European and US shoots in winter because it is in the southern hemisphere, is echoed by Starz’ Zlotnik, who says film franchises like Lord of the Rings and Avatar helped establish a high degree of technical expertise and led to the premium cable network’s decision to film Ash vs Evil Dead there.

In addition, Zlotnik says there is a robust relationship between the US and New Zealand thanks to the work done by Ash vs Evil Dead producer Rob Tapert, who first started bringing productions like Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess to NZ in the 1980 and 1990s. “Having someone like Rob involved provides you with the security you need when shooting on location,” he explains. As a general rule, having a reliable production services company in the market can be a big influence when weighing up the relative merits of locations.

...as did Spike TV's Tut
…as did Spike TV’s Tut

Another key point to understand about location decision-making is that the market is evolving all the time, adds Playground Entertainment founder and CEO Colin Callender. “No producer ever says they have enough money, so they’re always looking for way to secure a financial advantage that can improve the end result,” he says. “But things can change suddenly. With Wolf Hall we were looking at Belgium when the UK introduced its new tax credits. After that we knew we could afford to make the show in the UK and the decision became self-evident.”

There’s no question that the UK is a popular choice right now. Far Moor’s Irwin says: “Thanks to the additional tax credits, our first choice would always be to try to shoot domestically with potential enhancement from regional incentives such as Northern Ireland Screen (NIS) or Screen Yorkshire, unless there is an obvious creative rationale to shoot overseas. We’ve filmed numerous productions in Belfast, Northern Ireland, most recently with the ITV drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which is produced by Rainmark Films. We have also filmed two seasons of BBC2 series The Fall in Northern Ireland and are about to start prep on the third. We’ve found the crew in Northern Ireland to be highly skilled and the NIS funding adds to the appeal.”

One exception to Far Moor’s UK-centric approach was BBC1 period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which was partly filmed in Canada and Croatia. “The reason behind this was a combination of tax credit benefits of Canadian coproduction and the locations on offer. We added Croatia for its unspoilt locations, which were ideal for doubling as Waterloo and Venice; this couldn’t be achieved in the coproducing countries.”

While the Czech Republic and Hungary tend to be the preferred locations in Eastern Europe, they are facing increased competition within the region. The BBC’s new epic interpretation of the novel War and Peace has been shooting in Lithuania, where it benefited from a 20% filming incentive, while History’s 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys recreated Appalachia in Romania. Rising star Croatia, which introduced a 20% tax credit in 2011, also secured work from Game of Thrones and Beta Film-distributed Winnetou, a Western adventure based on the books by German author Karl May.

Looking at the global map, you definitely get a sense of location clustering – rather like the way you see estate agents next to each other on the high street. The southern US states and Eastern Europe are the best examples. But it’s noteworthy that the Republic of Ireland also forms part of a popular block with the British mainland and Northern Ireland.

Aside from Ripper Street, titles to have been based there include Penny Dreadful, Vikings and The Tudors. In part, this is down to tax incentives and crew quality, but it is also significant that the ROI has two impressive studio complexes, Ardmore and Ashford. Studios are also a key factor in the popularity of territories such as the US, Canada, UK, Germany, South Africa and Australia.

For all the reasons outlined above, producers tend to be slightly conservative when choosing locations, preferring to go with tried and tested areas ahead of unused ones. But there are a few places starting to attract interest as a result of new tax incentives. FM’s Porter says: “We are starting to look at producing drama that has more of an international profile to it, and as we do we are thinking about Malaysia and Singapore, both of which are increasingly important production centres.”

Starz zombie drama Ash vs Evil Dead was shot in New Zealand
Starz zombie drama Ash vs Evil Dead was shot in New Zealand

Malaysia, with its 25% production incentive and the recent launch of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, has already managed to lure Netflix original series Marco Polo and Channel 4 returning series Indian Summers to its shores. With the latter set against the backdrop of British rule in India, producer New Pictures initially looked at Simla in that country, but found it was too built up.

It also considered Sri Lanka, but was dissuaded by the fact that Channel 4 News had recently aired an investigation into alleged Sri Lankan war crimes, thus putting a strain on UK/Sri Lankan relationships.

Indian Summers, commissioned for a second season in 2016, was shot on Penang Island in north Malaysia. At the 2014 C21 International Drama Summit, director Anand Tucker described how “we had to recreate 1930s India and the Raj in the country. My job in setting up the show was also about creating the infrastructure. The most any local crews had done were a couple of movies or commercials, so it was also about training them to manage a 160- or 170-day shoot.”

While this can seem like a lot of effort up front, it is something executives at the distribution end of the process often value. Sky Vision CEO Jane Millichip points to productions like Fortitude (shot in Iceland) and The Last Panthers (shot in London, Marseilles, Belgrade and Montenegro). “Buyers like the sense of breadth and scale locations bring,” she says.

Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at A+E Networks, echoes Millichip’s view: “We’d always look at locations as a marketing tool, maybe organising trips for broadcasters to see the production.”

So what does the future hold for location-based production? Improvements in green-screen technology suggest more productions could stay closer to home. But this needs to be balanced against growing competition among channels, which encourages increasingly bold location choices.

Inevitably some countries and regions will fall off the locations map as they come to the conclusion that their tax incentives are not having much of an impact in attracting work. But others will always take their place.

Italy, for example, has seen a resurgence in film activity following the decision to introduce a tax credit in 2009 – and it’s not far-fetched to think TV productions may follow. Colombia has also seen an upturn since introducing its own incentive scheme in 2013. With Turkey talking about something similar, it seems producers with itchy feet can continue to scour the globe for the perfect backdrop.

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Under the radar

New Tricks is in its 12th season
New Tricks is in its 12th season

Sometimes the search for hot new dramas can distract you from shows that have been quietly going about their business for years.

There’s a good case in point in the UK right now, where the 12th season of BBC1’s comedy-drama New Tricks is currently out-rating more sophisticated BBC fare such as Ripper Street and Partners in Crime, the lavish new Agatha Christie adaptation.

Now up to the 100-episode mark, Wall to Wall-produced New Tricks is centred on a team of retired police officers who are recruited to reinvestigate unsolved crimes. The new season kicked off in the week commencing August 3 with ratings of 6.5 million (live+7 days) and pretty much held its ratings the following week.

Ripper Street, by comparison, attracted just under five million for its season three debut but had fallen away quite dramatically by episode three. Partners in Crime has held up a bit better, but is still lagging about 1.5 million viewers behind New Tricks.

In fact, the only thing that beats New Tricks are the UK’s soaps and factual entertainment juggernaut The Great British Bake Off.

Critics generally regard New Tricks as middle of the road. But its popularity with audiences is largely down to the fact that its cast is made up of actors who are national treasures. Although some of them have come and gone over the show’s 12 seasons, there is a warmth and familiarity to the series that recalls other favourites like Last of the Summer Wine, Minder and Birds of a Feather.

Interestingly the BBC decided earlier this year that the current run will be the last season of New Tricks. Possibly it did this because the audience is older than it would like. Or maybe it decided that, as a public broadcaster, it is duty-bound to try something new. Either way, it will soon kill off one of its best-performing shows – something that would never happen in the US TV market.

Ironically, the new season has actually had some good reviews, with The Times calling it “lean and pacy” and The Daily Telegraph admiring its humour, pace and suspense.

There have even been suggestions that the BBC may regret its decision. “New Tricks is formulaic, but it’s a stable formula that never goes stale,” says the Daily Mail’s Christopher Stevens. “Midsomer Murders is faced with the constant challenge of devising more outlandish killings, and Silent Witness must always seek out darker crimes, but New Tricks is timeless. All the components are endlessly recyclable.”

The Astronaut Wives Club
The Astronaut Wives Club

Meanwhile, AMC’s ad agency epic Mad Men has inspired a number of other series set again recent period backdrops, with notable examples including Aquarius, The Americans and Pan Am. One that is coming to a close this week is The Astronaut Wives Club, an ABC series based on the book by Lily Koppel. Set in the 1960s, the story focuses on a group of women whose lives are transformed once their spouses start launching off into outer space.

It’s not clear if The Astronauts Wives Club was ever conceived as a returning series, but the official line over the last few months has been that it is a self-enclosed limited series. This is probably the right decision given the lukewarm response from critics and its recent decline in ratings. Having set off on its journey with 5.5 million viewers, the penultimate episode dipped to a season low of 3.2 million. The final episode aired last night but is unlikely to have done anything to change the show’s fortunes.

Having said this, creator Stephanie Savage hasn’t ruled out the idea of other series that focus on female characters against the backdrop of a key historical event or era. So possibly we are seeing the genesis of another anthology series.

Speaking to Variety, Savage said: “There are so many incredible stories of women in history that haven’t been told. I’d be very happy to do one every summer for the rest of my life. It’s the twenties and the Second World War and Wall Street and the eighties – there’s so many worlds that can be explored and women have amazing stories that haven’t been told the way they should be.”

Turkish drama Ezel has been racking up sales around the world
Turkish drama Ezel has been racking up sales around the world

Turkey is Country of Honour at Mipcom 2015. So you’re likely to see a lot of stories about Turkish drama over the next few months as part of the PR activity around that event. One show you’ll hear a lot about is Ezel, a crime drama that was a ratings hit at home and has since been sold to various territories around the world by distributor Eccho Rights.

This week Eccho has further enhanced Ezel’s reputation with a raft of sales to broadcasters in Latin America. Unitel in Bolivia, TV Accion in Paraguay, Latina in Peru and Caracol in Colombia will all air the series, which is produced by leading Turkish production company Ay Yapim. Eccho, which worked with worked Miami’s Somos Distribution on the deals, claims Ezel has now been sold to every country in Latin America.

Fear the Walking Dead (FTWD), the companion series to AMC megahit The Walking Dead, debuts this Sunday, August 23. Where possible, AMC wants FTWD to air on its own international channel AMC Global (in order to link the show brand with the channel brand). But where that isn’t possible it is doing licensing deals with third parties, via distributor Entertainment One.

This week, it was announced that FTWD will debut in Germany and Austria exclusively on Amazon Prime Instant Video – a day after the US broadcast. Amazon also picked up second-window rights for the show in the UK, where the show will debut on AMC Global. This time next week, we’ll be able to explore whether the spin-off has managed to benefit from the buzz around its parent show.

The Scandalous Lady W stars Game of Thrones' Natalie Dormer (centre)
The Scandalous Lady W stars Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer (centre)

In TV, execs mostly talk about the relative merits of miniseries, limited series and returning series. But there are also times when one-off dramas can do a good job for networks. UK public channel BBC2, for example, has been airing a run of 90-minute dramas with reasonable levels of success. After The Eichmann Show and Marvellous, the most recent example was The Scandalous Lady W, a racy period drama set in the late 18th Century. With Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) attracting plenty of positive critical reviews in the lead role, the drama attracted ratings of 2.5 million viewers at 21.00, almost double the slot average of 1.3 million.

Interestingly, the show, like New Tricks, was produced by Wall to Wall, which will be celebrating the fact that it has delivered ratings success at both the populist and niche ends of the BBC drama spectrum.

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Max power

Maximilian: ''A captivating love story towards the end of the Middle Ages'
Maximilian: ”A captivating love story towards the end of the Middle Ages’

This week filming began on Maximilian, a lavish three-part period drama from MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF, budgeted at €15.5m (US$17.3m). The shoot is expected to take place over four months in Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and will involve 60 castles, palaces, church naves and medieval streets, 3000 extras, 550 horses, 800 costumes and 100 suits of armour.

A 100-strong team has worked for months in a 4,000-square-metre hall in Vienna to construct and produce all sorts of set decorations, costumes, wigs, weapons and – for the two battle scenes – fake corpses.

At the heart of all this pomp and circumstance is what the producers call “a captivating love story towards the end of the Middle Ages.”

Amid the power politics of medieval Europe, the narrative focuses on the romance between Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian, the headstrong son of Emperor Frederick III.

Beta Film CEO Jan Mojto said: “The powerful relationship between Maximilian and Mary works its fascination through its contrasts: here the Austrian Middle Ages, there the Flemish Renaissance; here impoverished knights, there bustling commercial centres; here political calculations, there grand, genuine emotions. These are the conflicting poles that must be aligned. And I have no doubt that director Andreas Prochaska and his outstanding roster of Franco-German stars will carry this off splendidly.”

Maximilian writer Martin Ambrosch
Maximilian writer Martin Ambrosch

Not to be overlooked either is Martin Ambrosch, the Austrian screenwriter who was tasked with writing the script for Maximilian. Born in 1964, Ambrosch started his career writing movies such as Frank Novotony’s Nachtfalter, Valentin Hitz’s Kaltfront and Antonin Svoboda’s Spiele Leben.

From 2001 to 2011 he was a writer, and later head writer, of crime drama SOKO Kitzbühel, for which he wrote more than 35 episodes. More recently, he wrote the pilot and eight episodes of ARD’s Das Glück Dieser Erde and a series of coproduced TV movies for ZDF/ORF under the Spuren des Bösen (Anatomy of Evil) banner.

The Spuren des Bösen films were directed by Prochaska (referenced above as director of Maximilian). The same writer/director duo then worked together on Sarajevo, an Austrian feature about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event that is generally regarded as having triggered World War One.

The film received good reviews, including a broadly positive analysis by The Hollywood Reporter.

Maximilian is arguably Ambrosch and Prochaska’s biggest challenge to date, but they have certainly proved themselves capable of handling epic content. It will be interesting to see if the end result is able to travel as well internationally as other recent German-backed successes such as Generation War and Deutschland 83.

Ripper Street's fourth season is in production
Ripper Street’s fourth season is in production

Production has also begun on season four of Victorian-era detective drama Ripper Street. The show was axed after two seasons on the BBC in the UK, but was subsequently revived by Amazon, which has also committed to a fifth season.

Ripper Street was created by Richard Warlow, who is also the lead writer on the series. Explaining the project’s appeal, he told the show’s US broadcaster BBC America: “It was all to do with trying to create a different kind of period show in a different kind of period London, where we could tell thriller stories instead of a drama. I hope we’re still a drama, but we’re essentially a police thriller in a world where I hope people haven’t seen a police thriller before.”

Represented by Curtis Brown, Warlow worked as a development executive at Pathe and DNA Films before getting his first break as a screenwriter with the original screenplay Three Mile Horizon, optioned to Paramount Pictures.

His other TV credits include writing on all three seasons of Mistresses, as well as showrunning its second and third series . In terms of upcoming projects, he is currently working on a new series for TXTV Ltd entitled The Boiling House and is adapting Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety for Fox/DNA.

Ripper Street creator Richard Warlow is adapting Hilary Mantel's novel A Place of Greater Safety
Ripper Street creator Richard Warlow is adapting Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety

The latter, which tells the story of The French Revolution, is being developed for the BBC, which is presumably hoping for the same sort of success it has seen with fellow Mantel adaptation Wolf Hall.

Amazon, meanwhile, has confirmed that the second season of its transgender comedy Transparent will be streamed from December 4. The show is the creation of Jill Soloway, whose previous credits include Six Feet Under. One interesting fact about the new run is that there is a transgender female writer, classical pianist Our Lady J, on the team.

Although the first season of the show was widely acclaimed by both mainstream critics and the transgender community, Soloway had previously made it clear she wanted a transgender female writer on board to help with the show’s authenticity.

Speaking at a New York Festival last year, she said: “No matter what we did, we were always going to be ‘otherising’ Maura (the central character) in some way. And in the same way where I wouldn’t want a man to say, ‘I can have a writers room full of men and we can write women just fine,’ I can’t say that I can create a show about a trans woman and not have a trans woman writing for me.”

With a marked absence of transgender writers in the business, Our Lady J was selected at the end of 2014 from a number of writers who submitted short stories to the Transparent team.

Transparent now has a transgender writer on its writing team
Transparent now has a transgender writer on its writing team

Describing herself as a “post-religious” gospel singer, Our Lady J announced her involvement in the show via social media: “I’ll be taking the next year off from touring to dedicate my life to the Pfefferman’s as staff writer for season two of #transparenttv. Thank you for having faith in me, @jillsoloway. The world is beginning to see us as we have seen ourselves.”

Meanwhile, it was reported this week that there is going to be a nine-day mid-production shutdown on Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down so that additional work can be done on scripts. The production, from Sony Pictures, is currently four episodes through what will be a 13-hour series.

Set in 1970s New York, the show was created by Lurhmann and Shawn Ryan and includes Jaden Smith in its cast. While Lurhmann is an example of film talent shifting to TV, Ryan is a veteran of the small screen. He was creator and showrunner of The Shield and The Chicago Code and co-creator of Last Resort. He is also used to working with marquee talent, having partnered David Mamet on covert-ops action series The Unit.

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Peaks and troughs

Kyle MacLachlan as Twin Peaks' Dale Cooper
Kyle MacLachlan as Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper

After months of Fox Network’s new drama Wayward Pines being described as ‘the new Twin Peaks,’ there was surely a degree of devilry in Showtime’s decision to confirm Twin Peaks’ return on the day that Wayward Pines launched. Now, presumably, we can look forward to a couple of years of Pines vs Peaks comparisons from fanboy websites.

Twin Peaks, for those of you too young to remember it first time around, was a surreal crime drama from warped genius David Lynch and his collaborator Mark Frost. Starring Kyle MacLachlan as FBI agent Dale Cooper, it focused on the death of homecoming queen Laura Palmer and the subsequent investigation. The revived show “will continue the lore of the original series, providing long-awaited answers for the series’ passionate fan base,” said Showtime. Lynch and Frost will write the new series (which will comprise at least nine episodes), with Lynch directing.

The greenlight comes more than seven months after the original announcement of Twin Peaks’ return, following the resolution of a budget dispute that had previously seen Lynch walk away from the project.

There’s no question that the announcement will generate a lot of excitement among Lynch fans. But it will be intriguing to see whether Lynch and Frost are able to instil the reboot with the same level of ingenuity and originality that brought huge swathes of viewers to the show in the first place. There’s no question that series one (1990) was unmissable TV. But series two didn’t hold audience attention in the same way, leading to an inevitable fall-off in ratings.

The BBC is adapting A Place of Greater Safety following the success of Wolf Hall, which was also based on a Hilary Mantel novel
The BBC is adapting A Place of Greater Safety following the success of Wolf Hall, which was also based on a Hilary Mantel novel

The first season, which consisted of eight episodes, launched to 34 million viewers on ABC in the US and regularly attracted 16-19 million. Season two (1991), which had a rather ambitious run of 22 episodes, started at around 19 million but was sub-10 million by episode 13 – dropping as low as 7.4 million on episode 20. Expect the first episode of Showtime’s run to premiere strongly, then watch to see whether it can sustain that audience across the entire run.

The return of Twin Peaks has overshadowed a number of other interesting announcements this week. Chief among these is the news that Turner-owned networks TNT and TBS plan to double the volume of original series they offer during the next three years and head in a more “daring” and “in your face” direction.

This is no surprise given the fact that other US channels like AMC, FX and A&E have stolen a march on the scripted front. Projects being lined up for TBS include a 10-part comedy called Wrecked, about a group of strangers forced to adapt when they’re stranded on a remote island (cast includes Zach Cregger, Ally Maki and Asif Ali), and a pilot called The Group, about alien abductions. TNT, meanwhile, has ordered two pilots. These are Animal Kingdom, a crime drama set in a surf community; and Will, a light-hearted look at William Shakespeare’s wild early years.

Over in the UK, the success of Wolf Hall has encouraged the BBC to develop another Hilary Mantel novel – A Place of Greater Safety. Set during the French Revolution, the drama is being written by Ripper Street’s Richard Warlow and produced by DNA TV. The 1992 book focuses on the lives of famed revolutionaries Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre. Already in the works at the BBC is an adaptation of Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which picks up where Wolf Hall left off.

Stanley Tucci will play Captain Hook in ITV's Peter Pan adaptation
Stanley Tucci will play Captain Hook in ITV’s Peter Pan adaptation

Stanley Tucci, best known for a series of superb comic roles in Hollywood movies, is now living in the UK – which is great news for the European TV business. After a recent outing in Fortitude, he has now been cast as Captain Hook in an ITV adaptation of Peter Pan. Produced by Headline Pictures, the new version of JM Barrie’s classic tale is called Peter & Wendy, and is being billed as “a contemporary two-hour special.” Adrian Hodges (The Musketeers) is writing the script and singer Paloma Faith will play Tinker Bell.

Also new from ITV is Jericho. Created by Sherlock and Doctor Who writer Steve Thompson, it focuses on an 1870s Yorkshire shanty town called Jericho, which is populated by “pioneers, settlers and outcasts.” On paper, it sounds like a cross between The Village and Peaky Blinders.

Jericho will be distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. The series will be shot in North Yorkshire, which presumably means it will have access to financial support from Screen Yorkshire’s Yorkshire Content Fund.

As we’ve noted in previous weeks, the US scripted market has received a lot of scrutiny in recent weeks because of the upfronts season. Interestingly, social media platform Twitter decided to monitor chatter about the new shows coming through and draw up a list of the ones that have been generating the most buzz. The ones that came out on top from the big five US networks were Scream Queens (Fox), DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (CW), Supergirl (CBS), The Muppets (ABC) and Heroes Reborn (NBC). There’s no guarantee these shows will go on to be big hits, but strong Twitter traffic suggests they can look forward to a healthy launch.

Fourth and fifth seasons of Ripper Street have been greenlit
Fourth and fifth seasons of Ripper Street have been greenlit

Finally, there is good news for Lookout Point and Tiger Aspect Productions, the companies behind period crime drama Ripper Street. Having been axed by the BBC in 2013 after two series, the show was rescued by SVoD platform Amazon Prime, which is supporting the production of its third series. Now, after generating strong results, Amazon has greenlit a further two series of Ripper Street.

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As digital changes the game, where does drama go next?

With the explosion in digital platforms, a sharp rise in investment and more varied content than ever, it’s certainly an exciting time to be working in the drama industry. But where does drama go from here – and what challenges is the new landscape throwing up?

The TV industry has always had a tendency to talk up the quality of its work. But there’s no question that TV drama is now more creative, ambitious and innovative than ever. While US, British and Scandinavian series tend to grab most of the headlines, a steady stream of excellent scripted shows from countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Israel, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey reinforces the point.

In fact, says Helen Jackson, chief creative officer  at UK-based distributor BBC Worldwide: “You would have to have been on Mars not to feel excited about developments in drama.”

For Jackson (pictured above), a number of factors have come together to create the current enthusiasm for the genre. “Viewing habits have changed so that there is a real desire among consumers for the emotional connections that drama brings,” she says. “That has been picked up on by channels and platforms, which realise drama is a brilliant way to engage with audiences, build their brands and then leverage other types of content in their schedule.”

Hit shows like AMC’s Breaking Bad, Showtime’s Homeland, Netflix’s House Of Cards, ITV UK’s Downton Abbey and SVT/DR’s The Bridge have proved this proposition and led to a huge increase in scripted content investment by broadcasters, distributors and the new wave of global SVOD platforms. This, in turn, has led to an influx of great writers, actors, directors and producers from the film industry, says Jackson.

“There is a strong trend for people travelling with ease between film and TV. We worked with Jane Campion on Top Of The Lake, a project that would have too big to think of in terms of a two-hour film.”

With TV now able to match film in terms of the quality of its storytelling, top talent is enjoying the ability to “explore characters over a long period of time,” she adds.

The growing appeal of drama has had a clear impact on BBCWW’s bottom line, Jackson continues, with the genre now accounting for 50% of the company’s revenues. Looking ahead, Jackson anticipates more growth, with drama on course to account for 60% of revenues next year. “Drama’s success isn’t to the exclusion of other genres, but it is definitely here to stay.”

The Honourable Woman
The Honourable Woman

BBCWW’s faith in drama’s future has encouraged it to form some high-profile partnerships with talent. It has a first-look relationship with Drama Republic, the company behind Maggie Gyllenhaal project The Honourable Woman, and also with On The Corner, a new indie that includes execs from the critically acclaimed movie Senna. In addition, it has taken a 35% stake in Lookout Point, a coproduction specialist that worked with BBCWW on Ripper Street and Parade’s End and is now in the midst of developing a TV version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

For Lookout Point, BBCWW’s investment is vital because it provides the company with financial stability and market muscle in what remains an expensive, high-risk business. But the deal is also a good indicator of the way the international drama business is moving. Put simply, high-end dramas are so ambitious they can’t be funded by a single broadcaster. As a result, companies like Lookout Point play a pivotal role in bringing together various parties to build the required budget – in structures that increasingly resemble indie film deals.

Ripper Street
Ripper Street

In the case of War and Peace, LOP brought in The Weinstein Company as a frontline partner. Just as interesting was the deal that saved crime drama Ripper Street from the axe at the end of series two. “The BBC loved the show and, if they had unlimited slots and money, would have done more,” says Lookout Point CEO Simon Vaughan. “But they cancelled it. So we brokered a deal with Amazon that helped us put it back on air for a third series. Amazon had the first window and then the BBC picked up the show for 2015. For us, that was creatively very exciting because we hadn’t finished telling our story.”

The themes outlined by Jackson are reflected in other developments in international drama. Earlier this year, for example, UK broadcaster Channel 4 created a new role specifically to develop international drama coproductions. Appointed to oversee this area was Simon Maxwell, who joined from Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment. He says: “It was a bold move by C4 to launch a third strand of drama alongside its domestic slate and acquisitions. I can’t specify the budget but it is in addition to what is spent on domestic drama.”

Maxwell says his creative brief is to find “contemporary authored dramas that are distinct from the domestic slate. So we’re looking for partnerships with like-minded broadcasters.”

His first big project is a textbook example of the new breed of cross-border drama that is capturing the headlines. Called Humans, the show is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy family is a robotic servant called a ‘Synth’. The show was originally produced by Matador Productions for Swedish public broadcaster SVT. The remake rights were then acquired by UK indie Kudos, with sister company Shine International coming on board to distribute both the Swedish and UK versions. Initially, the show was being prepped as a C4 partnership with Xbox Entertainment Systems. But when XES was shut down, US cable network AMC stepped in as a coproduction partner.

For Maxwell, Humans is “a project that will build on C4’s renowned drama brand. It’s an opportunity to achieve the scale and international appeal of shows like Fargo and Homeland.”

He is happy AMC has come on board because he believes the companies are a good fit. “The climate in favour of copro is stronger than ever. But it is imperative with projects like this to find people with the same vision, who want to make the same kind of show. You don’t want to enter partnerships where both sides are excited by the idea but have different editorial sensibilities, because you’ll be trying to create different shows.”

While AMC is in expansionist mood both domestically and internationally, it’s increasingly clear that the emerging digital platforms will also play a key part in the future of drama. Xbox may have turned its back on TV, but there is plenty of activity from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Sony Playstation (which recently jumped on board comic-book adaptation Powers with sister firm SPT).

Carrie Stein, EVP of global productions at eOne TV, says the rapid rise of digital platforms has transformed the funding of drama. “Two years ago digital didn’t exist in our sales projections, but now we can be looking at up to 30% from that sector. Sometimes there are so many digital players in one market that we might be able to sell a show five, six or seven times.”

Gaumont's Katie OConnell
Gaumont’s Katie O’Connell

It’s a similar story for Gaumont International Television, the LA-based arm of iconic French producer Gaumont. The company has seen critical and commercial success with horror series Hemlock Grove, which is just going into its third and final season on Netflix. GIT CEO Katie O’Connell says this is now being followed up with two very distinct series for Netflix: “We have announced Narcos, a brilliant look at life during the drug wars in Colombia in the 1980s. We’re also excited about a comedy animation with synergies between our US and French studios.”

Asked whether there is a difference between making drama for regular TV channels and SVOD platforms, producers often say different styles of viewing behaviour have to be taken into account. This is confirmed by O’Connell, who says the trend towards binge or box set viewing on SVOD meant “we had to think hard about the music on Hemlock Grove. It sounds more repetitive to an audience that is binge viewing than an audience watching once a week. You also have to think about the conclusion of each episode. With traditional TV you want a robust ending, whereas with SVOD you almost want to stop mid-sentence so people jump straight to next episode.”

Lookout Point’s Vaughan echoes O’Connell when he says that the way people watch drama now means it is possible to do “braver, more interesting stuff. Because people are watching shows via catch-up and are willing to immerse themselves in shows, writers and creators can make more complicated and nuanced decisions about the story. They don’t have to spoon-feed the audience; they can leave questions unanswered.”

With so many different platforms to produce for, a big question for producers is how to target their development. O’Connell believes it’s important not to try to second-guess channels: “The tail shouldn’t ever wag the dog,” she says, “We like to develop the narrative outside the commissioning network. Often, shows that offer the best creative expression are not prescriptive. They allow the auteur to bring something the audience and market don’t even know they want.”

eOne’s Stein makes a similar point: “It’s a problem when you try to put a project together and guess who will like different aspects of it. It diffuses the creative. So, where it makes sense, we are funding scripts before going to networks.”

One interesting recent trend in the US drama market, which has global significance, is the shift away from piloting towards full-series orders. GIT took this line with its thriller Hannibal, which was fully developed before being sold to NBC in the US and SPT-owned AXN internationally. When NBC greenlit the show, it went straight for a full-series order of 13 episodes rather than a pilot. This is can be advantageous to producers, says O’Connell: “Having a straight-to-series order helps when talking to talent. We could go to Laurence Fishburne and Hugh Dancy and offer them 13 episodes, not just a one-off pilot.”

The shift towards full-series orders has mainly been driven by cable and SVOD channels, but it is unlikely to spell the end of the US pilot system. Channing Dungey, EVP of drama development, movies and miniseries at ABC Entertainment Group, says pilots still have a value for ad-funded networks, which don’t want to commit to long-running series and then have to axe them after two or three episodes if they rate poorly. Economically, she says, there is greater logic in using pilots to test shows before the full series investment is made.

The main exception to this is shows like Hannibal, where the funding risk is being shared with the international market. In this scenario, where an international network and a distributor have already covered some of the budget, it becomes possible for US networks to dispense with pilots and go straight to series.

Echoing many of these scenarios, BBCWW’s head of scripted, Liam Keelan, says the big change in the drama market is that “deal structures are changing beyond recognition. There’s just not one single model when it comes to getting a project off the ground. For example, we used to take it for granted that we would need a UK broadcaster attached to a project, but that mindset doesn’t really exist anymore.”

He illustrates this point with a project called The Refugees, which “was being made for La Sexta in Spain by a Spanish production company called Bambu. It was a really smart eight-part sci-fi series that needed coproduction funding. Two to three years ago we wouldn’t have got involved because there wouldn’t have been the appetite, but the boom in demand for drama has changed that. We are in a global marketplace now.”

While the new “shared risk” funding model has provided a platform for the current boom in international drama, the big question is whether the drama sector can keep pumping out great stories, or if there are threats to the new ecosystem.

Justin Glover
Justin Thomson-Glover

One issue that has emerged as a concern is the lack of top screenwriters available to high-end productions. Writers can often be backed up for years with work – leaving some projects high and dry. Justin Thomson-Glover, managing director of Far Moor Media and Artists Studio, is a copro expert who has helped bring projects including BBC drama Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to life. He says he has been waiting for 12 years for a particular writer to become available on a project (though the good news is that the writer looks like he’ll be free in 2015).

Experts on the production side say the problem isn’t so much a shortfall of writers, but rather a lack of writers in whom commissioning broadcasters are willing to place financial faith. “There are lots of fantastic writers,” explains Thomson-Glover, “but very few who everyone can agree are fantastic writers.”

This pressure is exacerbated by the fact that so many broadcasters are looking for “authored” drama, says Greg Brenman, MD of producer Drama Republic. Unlike procedural dramas, soaps or comedy series, which tend to rely on a pool of writers, the new generation of drama is often handled by one (or sometimes two) writers. Brenman cites the example of Peaky Blinders, which saw creator Stephen Knight write all of season two. That’s the kind of scenario where new screenwriters could, in theory, be blooded.

Brenman’s company was widely acclaimed for The Honourable Woman and is now working on Doctor Foster, another drama that places an intelligent, empowered woman at the heart of the narrative. In terms of positives, he is excited by the creative opportunities the market presents, citing an increase in the number of “genre adjacent” shows like The Missing and Happy Valley, “where you see a crime show and a relationship show in one format.” But he is concerned about what he calls “content fatigue. I see a tension between serial and series. How many deep relationships can audiences commit to in TV?”

Future Drama panel features from left to right,
The Future Drama panel, from left: Amazon’s Chris Bird, Greg Brenman from Drama Republic, eOne’s Carrie Stein, Justin Thomson-Glover, Simon Vaughan and James Baker.

On the issue of writing talent, James Baker, MD of Pro7Sat1-owned Red Arrow Entertainment UK, believes the current demand suggests there is “a huge need for a writers/showrunners academy. It’s such an important thing that I think it is incumbent on bigger companies to create that process.”

Baker is part of one of Europe’s fastest-growing drama studios and has recently seen police show Bosch commissioned by Amazon. Echoing his peers, he is “bullish about on-demand. There’s already been a big step change in the last 24 months, and that is going to accelerate faster than people think. Already we have Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, and now there is talk of Vodafone considering content. Going forward, major networks are going to need a robust on-demand strategy, either on their own or in partnership. It’s fantastic news for the drama industry.”

For Baker, the key to survival will be flexibility, both in terms of how consumers gain access to content and creative partnerships. He also believes the industry “will see more non-traditional financiers coming into this space. I can see more venture money backing the long-term value of content.”

While producers and distributors are endlessly articulate when discussing the way forward for drama, it’s always interesting to find out what the new generation of drama-commissioning platforms think. For example, in November, Chris Bird, director of content strategy at Amazon Instant Video EU, attended the C21 Drama Summit in London, where he provided some insight into the company that commissioned shows like The After, Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle and Bosch during 2014.

The key to Amazon’s approach, Bird said, is that the company is “very customer-driven.” However, he dismissed the idea that Amazon’s decisions are purely based on data derived form audience behaviour: “No one buys into the idea you could base creative decisions just on data or feedback from customers. The data we have is very broad and deep, but so is the data broadcasters like the BBC and ITV have. Human opinion – plus data – will trump either of those tools alone. You have to use everything you have.”

Amazon’s approach is to make the relationship between audience and creative talent as “seamless as possible, cutting out anything in the middle,” he continued. In terms of the future, Bird predicted 2015 will see “a great volume and quality of drama shows appearing exclusively on online platforms. Content is going to be important as a point of difference, so we have to ensure the things we do are different to competitors.”

So what kind of drama works in the new landscape? “There’s such a bewildering array of platforms, you have to find a show that is as loud, impressive and ambitious as possible,” says Thomson-Glover. “Everyone is looking for something extraordinary.”

At Lookout Point, the emphasis is firmly on period properties at present. Aside from War and Peace and Ripper Street, the company is prepping Victorian ghosthunter series The Living and the Dead (6×60’) for the BBC and is also in the midst of developing a £20m-plus version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities. The 10×45’ miniseries is being written by Alan Bleasdale and will be distributed by BBCWW.

C4’s Simon Maxwell says a lot of sci-fi and international thriller projects are crossing his desk, “though what I’d love to find is an authored crime show that reinvents the genre.” In terms of projects other than Humans, C4 has unveiled Opposite Number, a political drama that focuses on a British nuclear scientist taken prisoner in North Korea, triggering an international crisis.

Looking at future trends, Red Arrow’s Baker expects to see “narrative content starting to jump from the internet to mainstream networks,” while eOne’s Stein anticipates “more shows crossing borders, like the foreign-language shows that have aired on BBC4 in the UK. I can also see more examples of shows taking audiences to different places, like Channel 4’s new 10-part drama Indian Summers.

However, Thomson-Glover sounds a note of warning: “There is an expectation now from broadcasters that you can deliver big budgets and big stars when they’ve only given you 40% of the budget. So there’s an ongoing puzzle regarding how you find the rest of the money in a way that won’t destroy the show. I also think there are some potential issues around aggregation, which means fewer independents.”

BBCWW’s Keelan says the current market is so competitive that “everything that goes out in the schedule needs to feel like an event. So I think we’ll see the middle squeezed.” One big feature of the new landscape is that producers don’t have to worry as much about the number of episodes, he adds. “You just have to look at how successful Sherlock has been around the world.”

Keelan also stresses his optimism for the future of linear TV as part of the drama viewing mix. Notwithstanding Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ prediction that linear TV will be dead in 15 years, he says: “People like their weekly fix. They want to have some social interaction around last night’s show. So I think linear is here to stay for a good while.”

 

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